Manitoba Parks: From A(sessippi) to Z(ed Lake)

May 30, 2010

You know there’s something special about the Manitoba wilderness when you’re living in a sub-tropical country, but all you can think about is camping in the Whiteshell and hiking in Turtle Mountain.

Those thoughts crossed my mind during the sweltering summer I spent in Taiwan in 2007. As the thermometer pushed 40 degrees—and swimming in the brown, polluted waters of the Taiwan Strait was not a palatable option— summer at the lake began to cross my mind. When I got home to Manitoba, I decided to make the most of my summers and get to know my province better at the same time.

Fast forward to 2010. After two summers of working weekends along with sub-par weather, I still hadn’t managed to hit the lake as often as I wanted and still hadn’t ventured out much further than Grand Beach. I wanted the summer of 2010 to be different. I decided that it was finally time to see Manitoba, from north to south and from east to west.

That’s how the idea for this blog was born. If I were going to travel around the province and see the sights, I wanted to go big; to make it a challenge. There are 77 road-accessible provincial parks in Manitoba. I decided to attempt to visit all 77 of these parks this year with a friend—two “weekend warriors” who want to see what Manitoba provincial parks have to offer.

It’s going to be quite the challenge. Road-accessible provincial parks span the province, from Zed Lake in the far north, to Pembina Valley in the south, from Moose Lake in the east to Oak Lake in the west. The distances involved are daunting. Zed Lake, the most northern park, is roughly 1,000 kilometres from Winnipeg. This journey may be more like a marathon.

#1 William Lake Provincial Park
#2 Turtle Mountain Provincial Park
#3 Pembina Valley Provincial Park

We officially kicked off our adventure on the May long weekend with a visit to the Turtle Mountain area. About an hour’s drive south of Brandon, these rolling, decidouous tree-carpeted hills are home to two provincial parks, Turtle Mountain and William Lake.

Turtle Mountain was carved by glaciers and eroded by wind over a period of millions of years. It’s a vast area that towers over the surrounding plains. Hundreds of lakes and ponds, home to moose, beaver, heron, and the ubiquitous painted turtle, dot the landscape. It’s a beautiful oasis of wilderness dropped right in the middle of vast swaths of farmland.

Camping at William Lake proved to be an excellent decision. The park is located about 20 minutes off Highway 10, down what can best be described as primitive back roads. The lake, stocked with rainbow trout and free of power boats (electric motors only), is a peaceful spot if you’re looking to get away from the crowded, noisy campgrounds closer to Winnipeg. Directly across the lake from the campground, rising above the reedy shore, is the Turtle’s Back Summit.

The Summit is the highest point in the area. According to the park’s helpful conservation officers, it has been a landmark for travellers in the region since the last ice age. Everyone from the Saulteaux to the Assiniboine to fur traders and Metis buffalo hunters used the Summit as a navigational aid as they crossed the prairie.

On Sunday afternoon we set off on the five kilometre hike around the lake to reach the Summit. The trail winds through the forest and in and out of a pasture area. We heard that it’s common to come across cattle lounging on the trail, but as we wandered through the fields, there wasn’t a single animal in sight, domestic or wild.

The last half kilometre was a 45 degree climb to the Summit – no switchbacks, just 500 metres of pure calf-burn. However, the view from the top certainly made the struggle worth it. The Summit overlooks all of Turtle Mountain— from the towers at the International Peace Garden to Boissevain— and all the lakes, sloughs, and hills in between.

The Turtle’s Back Summit trail is only one of many hiking trails that wind through the two parks. Adam Lake, in Turtle Mountain Park, is home to a network of over 50 kilometres of trails that wind through a labyrinth of lakes and ponds.

What appears to be the annual May long weekend downpour dashed our attempts at hiking around Adam Lake, so we decided to head east to Pembina Valley Provincial Park.

Located about half an hour south of Morden, along the south wall of the breathtaking Pembina Valley, the park is one of the province’s newest, created in 2001.

Hiking trails cut through this day-use park, with beautiful views of tall-grass prairie and prairie wildflowers – or so the brochure says, but we didn’t get to see that. The rain followed us and by the time we reached Pembina Valley it had turned into a full-blown thunderstorm. A return trip will likely be in the cards, as our camping partners are still keen to hike to the edge of the Pembina River to watch the sunrise.

We got off to a great start on our year long journey (despite the weather). We visited three beautiful southwestern Manitoba parks (somewhat) and had one very beautiful day. Next weekend we’re off to visit the parks of the southeast corner of the province.

Three parks down, seventy-four to go.

Neil Babaluk, a Creative Communications student at Red River College, is blogging for the Free Press on his explorations in Manitoba’s provincial parks.

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